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Scientists' Nightstand

The Play’s the Thing

Michael Bérubé

A review of On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, by Brian Boyd. Art has profound survival consequences, argues Boyd; this is in part because it raises our confidence in shaping life on our own terms


Help, Harm and Human Subjects

Sheldon Krimsky

A review of When Experiments Travel: Clinical Trials and the Global Search for Human Subjects, by Adriana Petryna, Exploitation and Developing Countries: The Ethics of Clinical Research, edited by Jennifer S. Hawkins and Ezekiel J. Emanuel, and Chasing Medical Miracles: The Promise and Perils of Clinical Trials, by Alex O’Meara. Can medical science advance without exploiting vulnerable populations?


Development in the Real World

Marvalee Wake

A review of Ecological Developmental Biology: Integrating Epigenetics, Medicine, and Evolution, by Scott F. Gilbert and David Epel. In this fascinating and highly readable introduction to the new field known as eco-devo, Gilbert and Epel show that the environmentally contingent aspects of development have important implications


A Panoramic View

Ronald Graham

A review of The Princeton Companion to Mathematics, edited by Timothy Gowers and associate editors June Barrow-Green and Imre Leader. “If I had to choose just one book to give an interested reader some idea of the scope, goals and achievements of modern mathematics,” writes Graham, “without a doubt this would be the one”


All in the Family

Gowan Dawson

A review of Incest and Influence: The Private Life of Bourgeois England, by Adam Kuper. Bourgeois families in 19th-century England often used endogamy to keep the money and property they had acquired in the family, says Kuper


Life’s Lineages

W. Malcolm Byrnes

A review of The New Foundations of Evolution: On the Tree of Life, by Jan Sapp. Sapp shows that microbes have always been problematic for evolutionary biologists and brings to life the debates over how to construct a tree of life based on molecular phylogenetics


On the Origin of Taxonomy

Kristin Johnson

A review of Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science, by Carol Kaesuk Yoon. Yoon argues that by turning the task of “naming nature” over to scientists, we have become disconnected from the living world; the remedy, she says, is for us to reconnect with the instinctive perspective on the order of nature that we were born with


A Growing Affinity

David T. Kung

A review of The Calculus of Friendship: What a Teacher and a Student Learned about Life While Corresponding about Math, by Steven Strogatz. A shared love of calculus keeps a teacher and student in touch for decades


Livin’ la Vida Micro

Thomas R. Powers

A review of Living at Micro Scale: The Unexpected Physics of Being Small, by David B. Dusenbery. Dusenbery does a nice job of explaining the physical constraints under which microorganisms must accomplish such tasks as locomotion and feeding


Early Spring

Anna Lena Phillips


Never a Dull Number

Brian Hayes

A review of Those Fascinating Numbers, by Jean-Marie De Koninck. What makes a number interesting?


Physics and Pixie Dust

David Kaiser

A review of Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World, by Eugenie Samuel Reich. Reich's exploration of the scientific frauds perpetrated by Jan Hendrik Schön, a researcher at Bell Laboratories, is impressive and sobering, says Kaiser


Despicable, Yes, but Not Inexplicable

Craig Stanford

A review of Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans: An Evolutionary Perspective on Male Aggression Against Females, edited by Martin N. Muller and Richard W. Wrangham. “Sexually coercive males are not just attempting to have sex with particular females,” says Stanford; “they’re trying to control female sexuality in general”


Dr. Strange

Michael D. Gordin

A review of The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, by Graham Farmelo. In Farmelo’s hands, the story of Dirac’s contributions to modern theoretical physics is both gripping and illuminating, says Gordin; the author captures the beauty and ambition of Dirac’s view of physics and sorts through the mythology that has grown up around him as a result of the many anecdotes that circulate about his oddity


Twilight of the Efficient Markets

Cosma Shalizi

A review of The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward, and Delusion on Wall Street, by Justin Fox. The theory of efficient markets in finance should be relegated to the Museum of Nice Tries, says Shalizi; he praises Fox’s book recounting its history, calling it “a model of what the popularization of social science can be, but too rarely is”


Runaway Change

John R. McNeill

A review of Critical Transitions in Nature and Society, by Marten Scheffer. Like canoes, natural systems have tipping points, argues Scheffer; once a hard-to-recognize threshold is exceeded, runaway change can occur that is difficult to reverse—a relatively wet area can turn to desert, a heavily wooded area can become a savanna. Could the integrated study of complex systems give us the insight to predict and control such shifts?


A Thin Broth

Jon D. Miller

A review of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. Mooney and Kirshenbaum offer a media-centric diagnosis of the problem of scientific illiteracy, says Miller, and they see improvements to science journalism rather than improvements to the educational system as the solution


The Loitering Presence of the Rational ­Actor

Karl Sigmund

A review of The Bounds of Reason: Game Theory and the Unification of the Behavioral Sciences, by Herbert Gintis. Empirical findings have necessitated that game theorists modify their assumption that players are rational—that they can figure out the payoff of all possible moves and choose the most favorable one. Gintis wrestles with findings that contradict conventional rationality assumptions, but his attempts to explain those findings are not entirely satisfactory, according to Sigmund, who is disappointed that Gintis allows only a marginal role for evolutionary game theory


Viva Voce

Brian Hayes

A review of Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, by Greg Milner. Milner, who has considerable technical expertise, takes a dour view of the state of the recording industry, deploring in particular the pursuit of loudness at any cost that has led to a compression of dynamic range


Shorter takes on four books

Rosalind Reid, Anna Lena Phillips, Greg Ross, Christopher Brodie

Fresh PondNo Impact ManIn Search of Jefferson’s MooseThe Stuff of Life


Scientists' Nightstand: Clifford A. Pickover

Greg Ross

The prolific science writer reviews his recent reading and favorite authors


An Interview with Frans de Waal

Greg Ross

The Emory University primatologist on nature's models for a just society


Scientists' Nightstand: James Lovelock

Greg Ross

The author of the Gaia hypothesis reviews his recent reading and favorite authors


An Interview with W. Brian Arthur

Greg Ross

The former Stanford economist considers how technology evolves


The Weakest Link

Chris Beard

A review of The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor, by Colin Tudge, with Josh Young. According to Beard, the 47-million-year-old fossil Ida differs in minor details from other adapiform fossils, but not in ways that make it likely that she is an ancestor of living monkeys, apes and humans


Brainstorming Babies

Ethan Remmel

A review of The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life, by Alison Gopnik. Gopnik argues that studying the psychology of young children provides insight into issues of consciousness, identity and morality—and that philosophers have failed to appreciate that fact


The Descent of Man

Robert J. Richards

A review of Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. Did Darwin’s antislavery sentiments lead him to reject racial hierarchy, thereby opening the way for him to believe in the common descent of the human races and then in the common descent of all creatures?


Modernism in Mathematics

Solomon Feferman

A review of Plato's Ghost: The Modernist Transformation of Mathematics, by Jeremy Gray. Modern mathematics took shape between 1890 and 1930, during the same era that modernism became the dominant form in literature and the arts. Is it just a coincidence that the nature of mathematical truth was being put into question at the same time that radical societal, cultural and scientific changes were occurring?





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